My call up papers came with a railway warrant for Gloucester, where I and another group of lucky lads, were picked up by army lorry and taken to the barracks of the Gloucester Regiment for our six weeks basic training. Unloaded at the barrack square, we were marched (shambled) to our huts, then to the QM stores for uniform and kit.
The Army does not give you your kit, it is yours “for the use of” during your stay. To-wit, one best battle dress, one belt, one hat, one pair of boots hobnailed, (for the endless polishing of) two shirts, one tie, socks, cellular drawers (two pairs, for the use of), not forgetting what the Sargent called my best friend, one short magazine Lee Enfield point 303 mark three, rifle, but after cleaning and heaving it about for six weeks, I did not feel very friendly toward it, and was glad to hand it back when I became a driver, apparently drivers don’t have best friends. All these things have to be handed in or accounted for on leaving the army, although some of the drawers (for the use of) that I have seen, I would not have them back if they were gift wrapped.
So began my six weeks of basic training, or how to stamp your feet by numbers. Marching up down up down it was called drill, and the Drill Sergeant would wave his stick about and shout at you day after day with lots and lots of words my delicate ears had never heard before; he could be very insulting at times. On the day we went to the rifle range, the word went around that if someone shot well, they would be sent to a guards regiment, so we all shot at someone else's target just in case, by some strange miracle, we managed to hit it. It did not seem to occur to us that some crack shot might hit our targets. Our rifles and Bren Guns (tripod mounted machine guns) fired the same rounds, and some days the rifle butts were better than a three ring circus. One innocent child was so nervous, that when told to fire the Bren in bursts of three rounds and single shot, he just closed his eyes pulled the trigger and had bullets flying all over the place, the NCO had to physically drag him from the gun. The local pub we went to in Gloucester was, I believe, called the Monks Retreat, and it was here that we were all hard drinking fine fellows together. But as we staggered back through the camp gates, uniform in disarray, the Provost Sergeant watching for potential victims, would pounce on us and reduce us to trembling mice, with the threat of jankers, (extra duties of a very unpleasant kind) hanging over us. At the end of five weeks we had to take an Intelligence test to see if we really were as stupid as we appeared to be, then talk to an officer about what we wanted to do during our army career (joke) and be allocated a unit. Having never attempted an Intelligence test before, I don’t think I had a very good score (my IQ was minus something I think). I did not understand any of this nonsense, and from what I had seen so far in the army, the last thing you needed was intelligence, and my request unit for the Waterborne Transport, was completely ignored. When our postings were put up, I was to go to a driver training battalion of the Royal Army Service Corps at a place called Blandford, this was a miserable group of huts a couple of miles outside the town, on a wind-swept chalk down.
My abiding memory of Blandford is trying to cut off a couple of little hairs on my chin with a razor blade (no razor) by the light of a small piece of candle, with cold water, in the middle of winter. If we left even one of the hairs in place, we would leave ourselves open to defaulter’s parade, (the Regimental Court) and jankers, (punishment) for being on parade unshaven. When going home on leave from Blandford, I would catch a train on the Somerset and Dorset Junction Railway, Blandford to Bristol Temple Meads. Going back to camp, I would board the train at Brunel’s old Bristol terminus station with its wooden platforms and hammer beam roof, now sadly no longer used.
The one cheerful thing was that we were going to learn how to drive a three ton Bedford lorry, anyone that could already drive being sent to the Far East. After waiting some weeks before getting an instructor, I started my training on a Wednesday afternoon. On the Friday I was sent to Poole in Dorset, (I think) to take a civilian driving test, at the end of which, the examiner expressed mild surprise that the army should have sent someone for test that kept stalling the engine, giving him whiplash with my jump starts, could not change gear, did not seem to know which side of the road to drive on, and made confused hand signals. When I asked if I had passed, he sort of bent over his clipboard quietly shaking, and sort of coughed into his hanky as he slowly shook his head. So I never did take a driving test, in the end I was given a licence for free, and sent to Bullford Barracks on Salisbury Plain to join 597 Company, Royal Army Service Corps, staff car and ambulance unit. I came to understand that this kind of thing was par for the course in the army. Continuing with this theme, I was put in charge of an Austin ambulance (blood wagon) and sent to Wilton, just outside Salisbury, the headquarters of Southern Command.
On my first staff car job, the officer asked if anything was wrong, as I was trying to get up a hill in top gear, I could not find any others. I was then given a Tilly (Austin Utility) and sent to Devizes Camp to drive the M.O. (medical officer) about. My next posting was to Bicester near Oxford, the Royal Army Ordinance Depot, and an enormous place during the war, with its own railway. Then on to the Pioneers camp at Tingewick, just outside Buckingham. One of the places the M.O. visited was Brackley Tank Park. I was told at that time that there were 16 thousand tanks stored there and I remember driving through rank after rank of them as far as the eye could see. Back at Bicester and seconded to the Royal Military Police (the red caps), a Sargent and two Corporals (they first marched me down to the barbers for scalping). It was never a dull moment, keeping an eye out for drunks and misbehaving Squadies. It was nice for once to be with the coppers, instead of on the receiving end. On one evening patrol, Sargent told me to drive them to Buckingham. Now when I was at Tingewick, just up the road from Buckingham, there was a nasty little jumped up Corporal that always tried to get me to give him a lift back from town (Illegal). I always drove past him and picked up one of the ordinary lads. On this particular night, thinking I was still with the MO, he was walking along with his hat off, and belt undone, and recognising my Tilly, stepped out into the road and ordered me to stop. The Sargent quietly said, “out the back lads” to his two Corporals, to make sure the suspect did not leg it. I think the Pioneer Corporal was rather surprised to suddenly be surrounded by two big Military Policemen, while the Sargent slowly got out of the passenger seat to take him apart, and I sat there with a nasty little smirk on my face.
After some time at Bicester, I was sent back to Wilton, and guard duty in the staff car park. This was inhabited mostly by Humber, Snipes, Boxes, and Brakes, with a couple of Rolls Royce’s for the big brass. If it was all quiet at night, I would sneak into the back of one of the Rollers for a crafty kip, with one eye open for any prowling NCO’s, although I suspect that they were asleep also.
The next detachment was the best. I was signed on to a three ton Bedford lorry and sent to Guys Marsh Hospital, Shaftesbury, Dorset, where I was to spend the rest of my time in the Army. The camp was about a couple of miles outside Shaftesbury town, and about four miles from Gillingham, (Dorset) railway station. I think there were three drivers and a corporal in our hut, with a detachment of Royal Artillery guards, as this was a mental hospital. Our hut was just inside the hospital gates, next to the guard room. The transport we were in charge of consisted of two 3 ton Bedford lorries, an Austin ambulance, a Bedford Q.L. Troop Carrying Vehicle and a Canadian Chevy ambulance, plus a Matchless motor cycle and a couple of utilities.
The duties consisted of operating a shuttle service to the railway station with the T.C.V. to pick up staff and patients. We also did runs with the Austin ambulance to Banstead hospital in Surrey, and on one occasion, after dodging the Electric Trams in central London, found myself and two medical orderlies being waved on by police, through the crowds, on Epsom racecourse on Derby Day. We had an obstreperous patient, squashed between two stretchers (to keep him quiet), the police must have thought the ambulance was on an emergency call, but we just wanted to see the Derby. Unfortunately we were waved right through the race course, and had to watch the race on telly in a nearby café. The discipline at Shaftsbury was rather relaxed after Bullford Barracks, (where one had to be very careful about wearing hats, belts, and gaiters). The distance into town was about 3 miles and we were the only ones who could supply transport. Legally, the permission of an officer was required before any journey could take place, the officer had to sign a work ticket which was made out for the journey in advance, but we could arrange to pick up friends and drop them off in town if we were willing to take the risk. One of the lads was doing this one night and on the way home ran into a horse, on common land, in the dark and killed it, as well as smashing up my Bedford truck, which he had taken without permission. I was sent back to Bulford Barracks and signed on to a new vehicle. Luckily I was then sent back to Guys Marsh, as I might have been sent anywhere. The lad in question was found guilty of the offence, and sent to prison at Colchester Glass House, for some months, I forget how long, then in keeping with good old army regulation and code of practice, was promoted to Corporal, and came back in charge of the detachment.
It was sometime after this that I was crossing the yard, and through the camp gate came a platoon of Royal Military Police, one Sargent and four motorcycle Corporals. This sent a wave of panic through the whole camp. On making enquiries as to the whereabouts of the other drivers, the Sargent sent off two of his squad to find them. One was found at the pub in town, the other at the railway station in the Bedford Troop Carrier with two local young ladies. The Medical Corps lads were not let off either, so charges flew thick and fast around the place for about five days. Then the Colonel, worrying that they might find out things that were none of their business, (for instance, how he managed to run a big American car on his petrol ration, and the diminishing coal from the cookhouse that was keeping half the pubs in Shaftesbury warm) said they were upsetting the work of the hospital, and ordered them off the camp, never to return, and every one breathed a sigh of relief.
I met my first girlfriend at this place. She was a local farmers daughter, and we met when she complained that one of the drivers had run over one of her chickens. The next bit of outside interference into our quiet lives came when Southern Command decided we were in need of extra training, so they sent the whole of 597 Company off to Plasterdown camp on Dartmoor (of which there is now no trace left). As most of us were now old soldiers, comparatively speaking, this was something of a lark. We had our rifles back, (that we had given up when we became drivers) and were issued with thunder flashes and blank ammunition which came in handy for firing through the windows of the nissen huts of other platoons in the middle of the night, in retaliation for them dropping thunder flashes down our chimney, blowing the stove apart and getting soot all over the place. The general Wild West atmosphere was added to by the Dartmoor ponies thundering through the camp in the darkness. This went on until the C.O. clamped down, and threatened to put the whole camp on jankers for a week. Instead we were sent out onto the moor, to wade through cold rivers with NCO’s tossing thunder flashes at us. Most of the NCO’s had been in the war and were real old soldiers, so gave us a rough time. Next we were sent off in convoy, two dozen Bedford’s one staff car and two motor cycle dispatch riders, on our way to Cornwall. I do not recall how we crossed the Tamar, maybe on the ferry, because the Saltash road bridge was not built then. If we had gone on the ferry it would have been chaos, so I would have remembered it. After having crossed Cornwall, which entailed going through Truro I think, and one of the lads getting too close to the local Dust Cart and towing it along the road with the council men running after it, we arrived at Hayle and camped in a sand pit for the night, sleeping in the trucks. Then having been wakened by the simple expedient of NCOs firing rifles through the foot holes in the tailboard of the trucks, and having breakfast of hard tack rations, it was still pitch black, and the Officer came around, and ordered us to keep our lights out as we moved off, so as not to give our position away. There were then twenty five young lads in three ton Bedford’s all trying to be first at the one small entrance to the sandpit. With Officer and NCO’s all screaming stop! Lights! Order was restored, and we were off up the coast on manoeuvres, luckily without an enemy in sight. Back at Plasterdown we packed up our things and off to Bulford Barracks for demob, a blue battledress, and railway warrants. I reported to Quarter Masters stores to hand in my hat, webbing belts, gators, and other kit (they let me keep my drawers). On the way back to my hut, across the Barrack Square, I heard a strangled scream, STAND STILL THAT MAN!, turned around and saw the Regimental Colour Sargent pointing to a hut door, “Get in there, what the el do you think you are doing walking across the square HALF NAKED?” “I am getting demobbed Sargent”, !@@!! “Get out of my sight, AT THE DOUBLE”. (Quiet snigger, “gotcha that time old cock”) Get the Bedford QL to town in my blue battle dress (no demob suit, the army could not afford it) and catch the train from Salisbury station to Bristol Temple Meads, and home. So ended my illustrious career in His Majesty’s armed forces, and I made a promise, if it was at all possible, never again to give up my freedom lightly.
A memory shared byon Sep 1st, 2012.
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